Gay Days at Walt Disney World will be here again before we know it, so I thought I would give you a history of how this annual event got started. As I so often do, I’ll begin my story at Disneyland.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, the Disney Company regularly rented Disneyland to corporations and organizations for a “Private Party” to be held in the evening after the park closed to regular paying guests. These “parties” were very much like “Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party” or “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party,” in that it required a separate ticket to attend. But unlike MVMCP & MNSSHP, the company or organization renting the park was responsible for selling the tickets rather than Disney. In addition, they would have to guarantee at least seven thousand people would attend the event. These parties usually took place in the off season when Disneyland closed at 6pm. After a quick turnaround, Disneyland would reopen at 7pm or 8pm for party guests and remain open until 1am. These party tickets were generally cheaper than regular admission so many Southern Californians would wait for their company’s night for their annual trip to Disneyland. In addition, ticket books were not required at these events so guests could ride the Matterhorn repeatedly without worrying about running out of “E” coupons.
Many organizations had standing reservations and year after year, their group would attend in a certain month. When I was a kid, my stepfather was in the military. Every year we attended Navy Night sometime in the dead of winter. I can still remember seeing my breath in the night sky as I drove my Autopia car in Tomorrowland – thrilled to be at Disneyland.
To give you an interesting example of one private party, Elizabeth Taylor rented Fantasyland for her 60th birthday for just herself and a few thousand of her closest friends.
When I started working at Disneyland, I of course was scheduled to work many of these private parties. It was interesting to learn that various groups would behave differently from one another or had different needs. For example, working at the Blue Bayou Restaurant, we knew that one pot of coffee was all we needed on Mormon Night.
In 1978 (or 1979), a number of gay individuals in Southern California decided that they wanted to rent Disneyland for an evening – just like any other group. However, they had a two-fold problem. First, they knew that the Disney organization would never allow homosexuals to hold a private party at Disneyland. And second, they needed an organization to represent their group. (You need to remember, in the 1970s, there were very few openly gay organizations.) To solve their problem, leaders of the community created the Greater Los Angeles Restaurant and Bar Association. This was a loose alliance of gay bars and restaurants located in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.
With their organization in place, the leaders of the association approached Disney and requested a party date – never mentioning that their group had anything to do with gays. A minimum attendance was guaranteed and contracts signed.
A couple of weeks before the big night, Disney found out that the Greater Los Angeles Restaurant and Bar Association was a group of gay bars and restaurants. They tried to cancel the party, but legal action was threatened and Disney knew they didn’t have a leg to stand on and backed down. When the big night arrived, Disney had extra supervision and security available to handle the perceived behavioral infractions that the night promised to bring. However, these precautions were not needed. The group behaved no better or worse than any other company or organization who rented the park. It was just another, uneventful private party. However, one interesting oddity was reported by the waitresses at the Blue Bayou Restaurant. They said that no other group tipped as well.
Even though the party went off without a hitch, Disney was not happy having “deviants” rent their park. The next day, Disney handed out a letter of apology to every cast member who had worked the party. In the letter, management stated deep regret for subjecting their cast members to such unacceptable working conditions and promised that nothing like this would ever happen again.
The following year, The Greater Los Angeles Restaurant and Bar Association once again approached Disney about renting the park for an evening. They were flatly turned down. However, Knott’s Berry Farm and Magic Mountain (now Six Flags Magic Mountain) were more than happy to rent their parks to gays and continued doing so for a number of years.
In 1980, Andrew Exler and his date Shawn Elliott were fast dancing in Tomorrowland at Disneyland. Two security guards witnessed the gentlemen and approached them on the dance floor. One guard said, “This is a family park — there’s no room for alternative life styles. Two men can’t dance together, this is our policy.” The second guard said, “We make our own rules — this is a private park.” When the two men continued to dance, they were taken to Disneyland’s security office and eventually asked to leave the park for the rest of the evening. Exler subsequently sued Disney and the case languished in the courts for four years. In May 1984, a superior court judge ruled that Exler’s civil rights had been violated and ordered Disney to abolish their ban on same sex dancing and pay attorney fees amounting to $25,000. Disney did pay the attorney fees, but maintained that the lawsuit was not a class action suit, thus, would only apply to Exler and Elliott. No other gays would be allowed to dance at Disneyland. On August 14, 1985 Disneyland quietly reversed their 28-year-old policy that prohibited partners of the same sex from dancing together in the park. However, this apparently didn’t include slow dancing.
In late 1987, three UCLA students were told, “touch dancing is reserved for heterosexual couples only.” In response, they filed a lawsuit against Disney citing another civil rights violation. However, before the case ever made it to the courts, Disney reassessed the situation and backed down.
In 1984, Michael Eisner became CEO of The Walt Disney Company. At that time, Eisner named Jeffrey Katzenberg to head Disney’s motion picture divisions. Shortly after arriving, it was brought to Katzenberg’s attention that Disney was the only major movie studio to deny domestic partner benefits to its employees. Realizing that the company was losing talented people to the competition because of this policy, Katzenberg was instrumental in rescinding it. On January 1, 1986, Disney began offering full benefits to the domestic partners of its employees.
In 1991, Doug Swallow and some of his Orlando friends decided to get a group together to visit the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. They picked the first Saturday in June. The idea was promoted at gay venues around the city and people were asked to wear red shirts so fellow attendees could recognize one another. It’s estimated that 1,000 to 1,500 showed up. The event was successful enough that another Gay Days was planned for the following year – once again, the first Saturday in June.
For the second Gay Days, Disney issued a memo to cast members instructing them to disavow any knowledge of the event.
In 1994, Disney posted signs at ticket booths and near the main gate informing guests that there was a gay and lesbian gathering at the Magic Kingdom. However, the signs went on to say “Walt Disney World is open to everyone. We do not discriminate on any basis.”
Disney received a lot of flak for these signs. It was pointed out to management that they would never dream of posting similar signs if another minority were to visit the park in mass. The signs did not reappear in 1995. However, for several years thereafter Disney distributed flyers to their hotel rooms informing guests that the Magic Kingdom would be very busy on that day and perhaps they might want to visit another park. Gay Days was not mentioned as the reason.
Disney also started providing their Guest Relations cast members with prepared statements to calm homophobic guests. In essence, the statements said that Walt Disney World is open to everyone and they do not discriminate against anyone. In some cases, Disney would swap out a 1-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom for another park for irate guests.
It is estimated that 50,000 participants visited the Magic Kingdom for Gay Days in 1995.
In 1997, Disney rented Typhoon Lagoon to the event organizers for an after-hours party – a tradition that continues to this day. In that same year, the Southern Baptist voted to boycott Disney because of Gay Days and Disney’s domestic partner benefits. The boycott had little to no effect on the company and was rescinded in 2005.
In 1998, the City of Orlando flew rainbow flags downtown to welcome visitors. And in 2002, Gay Days is referred to specifically in welcome letters from the Orlando mayor and Orange County chairman.
Today, Gay Days attracts over 150,000 visitors to the Orlando area for the week-long celebration. Besides special days at the Disney parks, over forty events are held in and around Orlando and it’s estimated that more than $100 million is pumped into the local economy. Website GayDayS.com is now on the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau membership roster and part of VISIT FLORIDA, the state tourism agency.
The Disney theme park days for 2012 are as follows:
Thursday, May 31 – Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Friday, June 1 – Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Saturday, June 2 – Magic Kingdom
Sunday, June 3 – Epcot
Saturday, October 6 – Disneyland
Sunday, October 7 – Disney’s California Adventure
In response to a rash of suicides among bullied gay teenagers, columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller began an internet-based project entitled, “It Gets Better.” They requested that gay adults create videos, telling lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth that things will get better as they grow older and to hang in there — their lives have value. And if they are being bullied, let someone know.
Disney has joined the fight against gay bullying and created a video featuring cast members from across the company.
To view the official “It Gets Better” website, click here.
All bullying must stop!